CenturyLink, Verizon and Windstream battle over 90-day copper retirement period

CenturyLink, Verizon and Windstream are once again engaged in a battle over the timelines for copper retirement set by the FCC at a time when new Chairman Ajit Pai is looking to reverse rules set in place by his predecessor Tom Wheeler.

In its 2015 Technology Transitions Order, the FCC under Wheeler proposed giving competitive carriers and businesses six-month’ notice, while residential customers get three months’ notice before copper facilities are shut down.

ILECs are required to provide notice to CLEC wholesale customers that use copper facilities to deliver voice and Ethernet over Copper (EoC) services to business customers. ILECs would also be given the option to retire copper networks and replace them with fiber without prior Commission approval, but only if no service is discontinued, reduced, or impaired.

Now that new Republican Chairman Pai is at the helm, large ILECs like CenturyLink and Verizon and competitive providers like Windstream and Transbeam are debating the merits of the timeline.  

RELATED: FCC proposes simplified copper retirement, pole access regime

During its April meeting, the FCC put forth proposals to reform the pole attachment process and copper retirement, two issues it said create regulatory barriers to advancing the growth of wireline broadband services.

At that time, the commission said that its reforms will help accelerate deployment of next-generation networks and services by removing barriers to infrastructure investment at the federal, state and local level.

Delaying copper to fiber migrations

Unsurprisingly, CenturyLink and Verizon – two of the largest U.S.-based ILECs – maintain that having a longer copper retirement period will delay their migrations from copper to fiber.

In a recent FCC filing (PDF), CenturyLink maintains that it is rarely is asked to extend a shutdown of copper facilities.

“In the dozen years that the 90-day notice rule was in effect, CenturyLink received only a handful of requests for additional time,” CenturyLink said in a FCC filing. “And, when it got those requests, it readily accommodated them. By defaulting to a 180-day notice period, the Commission doubled the delay for ILECs to upgrade last-mile facilities from copper to fiber.”

The telco added that “180 days is simply too long to accommodate some network upgrades.”

CenturyLink said when it had to relocate a copper cable in a roadside conduit, due to road construction in Richfield, Minnesota it could not replace the copper with fiber because of the 180-day timeline. The telco said it only 140 days to move its facilities.

“This additional work cost CenturyLink $36,000— money that more productively could have been used for deployment of new or upgraded broadband facilities,” CenturyLink said. “Given the short construction season in many parts of the country, such timeframes are not unusual and are consistent with the schedules for CenturyLink-initiated projects as well.”

Joining CenturyLink in a call to reinstate the 90-day copper retirement notice is Verizon.

Verizon says in its FCC filing (PDF) that a 90-day copper retirement period since most service providers and business customers understand that the ILECs are transitioning to fiber in their networks.

“As a starting point, the Commission should adopt a shorter 90-day public notice period,” Verizon said in its FCC filing. “As the Notice notes, customers and competitive LECs have been aware that technology transitions are happening and 90 days’ notice should be more than enough time for them to act, particularly when they will be retaining the same services over fiber that they had over copper.”

Verizon said that by migrating more of its consumer customers from copper to fiber, it has been able to reduce maintenance calls.

To date, Verizon has filed notices with the FCC to retire copper at approximately 3.8 million locations across eight states. This is part of a broader program Verizon began in 2012 targeting so-called “chronic” copper customers or those that have had technicians come to their homes to resolve an issue.  

“We estimate that from 2012 through 2016, Verizon made approximately 3.4 million fewer repair or trouble-shooting dispatches than would have been required had these customers remained on copper facilities,” Verizon said. “Although it is hard to quantify these saved dispatches in terms of savings to customers, there is no question that many customers avoided the time and hassle of scheduling repair appointments and being home or missing work to meet a repair technician.”

Windstream cites transition concerns

However, not everyone agrees with CenturyLink and Verizon’s assessments.

Windstream, which has been championing reforms for copper retirement and special access services, said in a filing that the challenge for CLECs is the transition of business customers to new services.

“While, as the Commission notes, interconnecting carriers are “aware that copper retirements are inevitable” and are “familiar by now with the implications of and processes involved in accommodating such changes,” this familiarity doesn’t simplify the onerous process of transitioning retail customers,” Windstream said.  “As INCOMPAS has explained, incumbent LEC copper retirement frequently requires competitive LECs providing Ethernet over Copper or purchasing TDM-based DS1s and DS3s to migrate to other forms of last-mile access. In many cases, existing service features and functions cannot be supported on fiber and/or IP-based alternatives.”

Besides giving competitive providers a way to seamlessly transition their retail customers, Windstream the longer copper retirement process does not place a huge burden on incumbent telcos.

“As the Commission noted in the 2015 Technology Transitions Order—and as Windstream knows in its capacity as an incumbent LEC—network providers plan their deployments and network improvements far more than six months ahead of time,” Windstream said. “In addition, the copper retirement timeline established in 2015 provides more certainty for incumbent LECs because it eliminated the objection process and the costs inherent in it.”

Windstream added that “if the Commission returns to the 90-day notice period, it should reinstitute the objection process so that interconnecting carriers may obtain additional time if necessary to maintain uninterrupted service to retail customers.”